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What next in Israel and Iran’s shadow war?

Events are once more pitting the the Middle East’s regional superpowers against each other. Civilians on both sides fear they will be the victims.  

By David Patrikarakos

“It’s starting again.” The messages have been pouring in over recent weeks. My phone lights up, humming as the encrypted messaging apps deliver their covert payloads. 

Most recently, it’s Israelis getting in touch. When Israel and Hamas clashed in Gaza in May, the Israeli Defence Forces won a decisive victory. But Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, also made its point: launching drone attacks alongside the hundreds of missiles it fired. “Where are they getting them?” people wanted to know about the new “Shebab” drones, which had a strong resemblance to Iran’s Ababil 2 drone. Israel may be fighting Hamas, but it knows the greater threat lies in Tehran.

The month before, however, it was Iranians, concerned for their safety. “What are you hearing over there?” Pinged contacts in Tehran as I followed events from Athens. “Will we be attacked?”

On 11 April 2021, a power failure apparently caused by a deliberately planned explosion hit Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. The facility houses the main component of the country’s uranium enrichment programme – the primary means through which the country could reach a nuclear weapons capability. Iranian officials called it sabotage. They blamed Israel. They vowed revenge. “This is a crime against humanity and carrying out such actions is in line with the essence of the Zionist regime,” said foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

In both explosives and diplomacy timing is everything. The blast occurred as Iran met with European powers in Vienna to try to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council Powers plus Germany) that former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. The Israelis were sending a message: talk if you want but strike a deal we can accept.

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Last year, on 27 November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of the most senior figures in Iran’s nuclear programme was killed on a busy street in Absard, a city near Tehran. No one claimed responsibility, but it was widely reported to be the Israelis, who as ever made no official comment but did little to discourage the speculation. Once more, my phone lit up. Once more, there was fear. Israel has been killing Iranian nuclear scientists for over a decade now, but never anyone as high profile as Fakhrizadeh. Things were heating up.

***

These events are only the latest in a saga that has lasted – on and off – for almost the entire century. The nuclear crisis began on 14 August 2002 when Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), revealed full details of a uranium-enrichment site at Natanz and the construction of a heavy-water plant at Arak, which, once operational, would be capable of producing plutonium; two paths to a potential nuclear bomb. The diplomatic world condemned Iran; negotiations began. Publicly, the PMOI gained credit for the revelation, but privately security sources assured me that the information came from Israel.

Negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief – which were painful and fractured – lasted until 2015, when former US president Barack Obama oversaw the signing of  the JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Obama saw the deal as the pinnacle of his foreign policy, as did his vice-president Joe Biden. The JCPOA set restrictions on both of Iran’s plutonium production and uranium enrichment activities, and it gave International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors greater access to Iranian facilities. In return, Iran received over $100bn in assets frozen overseas, and was able to resume selling oil on international markets and using the global financial system for trade.

But Israel was livid. First, Obama had not tied the deal to Iran’s regional behaviour. Then the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that Iran would now have billions of dollars to continue its offensive in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities were also to be lifted after 10 years (in 2025) and the limitations on uranium enrichment five years after that (2030). Theoretically Iran could then dash for a bomb.

When the deal was signed, Netanyahu was angry. It was, he said,  “capitulation”. He wasn’t alone. In New York, a real estate tycoon and reality TV star called Donald Trump was also unimpressed. “#IranDeal will go down as one of the dumbest & most dangerous misjudgements ever entered into in history of our country – incompetent leader!” he tweeted.

A year later, Trump was elected US president. In 2018, he withdrew from the deal. Iran responded by restarting uranium enrichment, though it said that the decision was reversible. Since then, the Europeans have tried to keep the JCPOA alive but without US involvement it’s largely pointless. And similar to an untreated wound, the diplomatic impasse has curdled into something more dangerous.

Now President Biden wants to fix things. Israel fears that as a strong supporter of the JCPOA he will simply return to it. Recently, I spoke to Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli minister for community affairs and former minister of intelligence and nuclear affairs, previously responsible for overseeing Israel’s intelligence agencies Mossad and Shin Bet. Known to be close to Netanyahu, Hanegbi makes his views on the Iran crisis plain. “I still hope that the new US administration will recognise that a longer and stronger agreement is crucial,” he told me. “I can’t tell you that I am convinced [that it will] but that is my hope.”

He continued: “The JCPOA does not ensure that Iran will never have a nuclear weapons capability. On the contrary it gives legitimacy to Iran’s uranium enrichment programme therefore it enhances Iran’s attempts to obtain military capabilities.”

If Israel is steadfast so are the Iranians – thus far. For each alleged Israeli action, Iran has responded – at the official level – by restarting nuclear activities. In January 2021, in response to Fakhrizadeh’s killing, Iran restarted uranium enrichment to 20 per cent. After the Natanz explosion, it announced enrichment to 60 purity – a clear move towards weapon-grade levels. Both decisions are reversible, subject of course to an appropriate deal. If the nuclear programme has brought Iran few tangible energy benefits, the political capital it has provided its government has given it the leverage to make demands.

Neither Iran nor Israel will yield. And while their governments lambast each other in public, they also stalk each other on the seas: Israel attacks Iranian tankers in the eastern Mediterranean while the Iranians strike back against Israeli container ships. But it is the attacks inside Iran that have most perturbed Iranians. Fakhrizadeh was well protected but was killed in broad daylight on a busy street. The Natanz blast, meanwhile, was supposedly done with inside help. The Iranians are rattled. In the Majlis (parliament), they rail against traitors and saboteurs.

***

Domestic politics in both countries now threaten to intensify things further. Last month, Ebrahim Raisi was elected Iran’s new president. The most hardline person ever to hold the office (in what is a very crowded field), he vowed there would be no compromise over Iran’s enrichment programme. Raisi is an unpopular choice in Iran (there are allegations of regime meddling which ensured his election) and the region. He has a lot to prove. Meanwhile, in Israel Netanyahu was finally voted out after 12 years in office. With customary grace, he used his parting speech in the Knesset (after boasting about his achievements for half an hour) to claim that his successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, would fail to stand up to Iran. Bennett now has something to prove, too.

The omens are not good. “What’s next?” the messages ask. Iranians know that Israel has struck nuclear facilities before: in 1981 Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, and more recently, in 2018, it admitted to a 2007 strike on a nuclear reactor in Syria. Iran knows that if Israel strikes its facilities, the regime will have to do more than just rail. It will have to strike back; and that could mean war. “I hate the mullahs. I also don’t want to be bombed,” went one message I received in April.

But Israel is driven by its own fears: that an anti-Semitic, theocratic regime may soon stand on the brink of the ultimate weapon. Something it will never allow. “If a deal is legitimised by the world that is inadequate, we are not committed to respecting it,” Hanegbi told me.  

“What does that mean?” I pressed him. “Let me be clear,” he replied. “If Israel is left alone because the world has given legitimacy to a nuclear Iran, we will not be bound by that. And we will do whatever it takes to defend ourselves. Just like we did in Syria and just like we did in Iraq.”

[See also: Naftali Bennett’s first aim as leader of Israel’s new government will be to wreck it]